Listening to Christina Aguilera’s rendition the national anthem at the Super Bowl was an hearing-impairing experience, although I think the people who criticized her would probably have been more hesitant to do so if she was black—particularly given the fact that her singing style is typical of the current wave of “pop” artists dating at least to Mariah Carey’s entry onto the scene. I admit that the Star Spangled Banner is not the most melodic of tunes, but to sing it vocally all over the sonic spectrum above dog whistle is ridiculous and not at all “art.” I suppose that a person’s mind has to be wired to enjoy conventional, memorable melodies these days; if not, you get this. To listen to these current singing styles, someone like me who remembers what a real song is like can only laugh and cry at the same time. The concept of what a “song” is has just become a limp frame to hang uncontrolled vocal gymnastics.
Maybe I’m “old school,” but the classic song structure, exemplified by the ballad, has been around for at least 2,000 years. If we’ve come to the point where the younger generation has no appreciation of classic song structure, then it is indeed a measure of how the words and music form is dying a slow death. Repetition and derivativeness has always been a part of popular song structure, but in today’s popular music (especially in hip hop and its off-shoots), being ragingly repetitive and derivative (in an almost incestuous way) has become not just part of the “art,” but deliberate in a way that questions its worth as an artistic artifact beyond an expression of urban culture. When future artists seek cover versions of songs to record, they won’t be looking in the current era for them (or shouldn’t), but the past.
I find female singers today particularly irritating (with the possible exception of Katy Perry, not because she's a good singer but her hits are not particularly unlistenable). I remember when Carly Simon, Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight as artists who were not “beautiful,” indistinguishable Barbie-doll singers with over-blown “technique”; they were real, honest, with distinct personalities--and could carry a tune (well, Simon couldn’t quite hit the high notes). Diana Ross was a “beautiful” singer, but she had a natural talent to squeeze every ounce out of a melody without resorting to vocal fakery (I once overheard someone complain that Toni Tenille sounded like a “n-word,” which if it had been phrased differently was something she probably would have taken it as a compliment). Even if you were unfamiliar with a song, once the singer came in, you didn’t need to guess who it was, and they didn’t pretend to be something they were not, as is the case today.